Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

Troops going up to the front past ruined building in the Ypres sector of the front during the 3rd Battle of Ypres probably late September 1917.  Photo: New Zealand National Army Museum

Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918)

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that the Big T’s great uncle Eric served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI, and was wounded on the first day of the Allied attack on the town of Messines, in the very north of France, on June 7th 1917.

His account of the attack, and of his injury, is contained in a letter sent to his sister Doris back in New Zealand. We were recently sent a transcript of this letter, which you can read here.

I’ve been trying to piece together an account of his military service from a range of sources that I’ve been able to access, including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph database and Eric Gray’s service record, obtained from Archives New Zealand.

I’ve also found the History of the Canterbury Regiment, by Captain David Ferguson. Published in 1921, incredibly useful for providing context. This book has been digitized and is available free via the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, which is part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library.

Eric Gray’s service record is largely a series of chronologies; dates that had significance for the military administration. In many cases, they raise rather than answer questions. But this is the structure of Eric Gray’s life as a soldier.

4 April 1916: the first date that appears on any of the records. It seems that on this date, Private Eric Andrew Gray – then aged 20 – became a member of the First Company, 1st Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment.

26 July 1916: embarked for overseas service from Wellington, NZ.

4 October 1916: arrived in Devonport, in Plymouth, England. The record says “marched into Sling.”

Sling was a military camp next to the town of Bulford, on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. In 1916 it was principally occupied by NZ troops. [source: Wikipedia] As Sling is over 130 miles from Devonport, and Google Maps show it as a 45 hour walk, I assume that soldiers were transported by train or truck to the camp.I wonder what a young farm labourer from the South Island made of his trip though southern England?

20 October 1916: departed Sling for France.

Sling Camp and the Chalk Kiwi c.1919. Photo: Christchurch History Society / Wikipedia

3 November 1916: service record notes that on that day he was recorded as being “improperly dressed on 4.30pm parade. Punishment 2 days C.B. [confined to barracks]”. The location shown on the record was Etaples, in the Pas-de-Calais.

The town of Etaples was used by various Allied forces as the location for military camps, hospitals and war cemeteries (FirstWorldWar.Com)

8 November 1916: Eric Gray’s service record shows two entries on this date. One reads “joined Battalion and posted to No.1 Company.” The authority for this entry reads “Pii O No. 34 Rouen 23.11.16”. Further through the document another entry reads “joined 2nd Bn C.R. [assume this is Canterbury Regiment], Field.”

From Ferguson’s History of the Canterbury Regiment, I’ve learned that at the time Eric Gray arrived in France, the battalions were recovering from very heavy loss of life during the Battle of the Somme, fought between July and October of 1916. In total over 1100 soldiers from the First and Second Canterbury Battalions had been killed during that time.

For the next few months, these troops were involved in a number of small offensives, but were periodically relieved by other New Zealand, Australian and Scottish Battalions in order that the men have some rest periods away from the Front. The Battalions seem to have been billeted in towns and villages close to the city of Lille, including Sailly, Estaires and Nieppe.

This period of relative calm continued until March 1917, when the Battalions were moved north-west toward the village of Messines, which had been held by the Germans since the Second Battle of Ypres, in April-May 1915.

Preparation for the Allied offensive took place from March, until the first attack on June 7th – the day Eric Gray was wounded.

Eric Gray’s Casualty Form (Army Form B. 103) – which forms part of his service record, contains quite a lot of detail about the days following his injury.

7 June 1917: wounded. In a letter to his sister dated 13 June, he described the circumstances:

… it wasn’t until about half past three or four o’clock when I got my smack. A small shell burst in the trench near me and the flame of the explosion burnt my neck and a piece went in the back of my right shoulder …

On that day he was transported to No. 11 Casualty Clearing Station. According to The New Zealand Medical Service in the Great War 1914-18, by A.D. Carbery (1924), this was located at Baillieul East – about eight miles from the front, and “… used for lightly wounded from our Corps.”

Carbery went on to say:

In the casualty clearing stations, at Baillieul, there was great congestion, so many of the wounded required operation; the surgical teams could not keep pace with the incoming casualties. In order to relieve the pressure, 100 stretcher cases, mostly gunshot injuries of the head, were despatched by M.A.C. to the New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Hazebrouck, where they arrived at 4 a.m. on the 8th. During the first day this unit had admitted 10 sick and 187 wounded.

8 June 1917: under the care of 77th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, Eric Gray was transported from Baillieul to Boulogne.

9 June 1917: he was repatriated to the UK and admitted to Brokenhurst Hospital, Hampshire. This was the principal hospital of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in England during WWI.

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A postcard of wounded soldiers and nurses at the New Zealand Military Hospital at Brockenhurst, England, taken in 1918. Photographer unknown. Photo: North Auckland Research Centre, Takapuna Library Archives

28 August 1917: he was transferred to Codford Depot on the Salisbury Plain. Properly called the New Zealand Command Depot, soldiers were sent to Codford for rehabilitation before being returned to their unit.

21 November 1917: returned to Sling. This means that Eric Gray had been deemed fit to return to active service.

13 December 1917: the record simply says “left for France.”

16 December 1917: It appears that Eric Gray was sent to the New Zealand Infantry and General Base Depot at Etaples. He remained there until 6 January 1918 when he was posted to the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment.

During the period that he had been convalescing in England, Eric’s regiment was engaged in the terrible, protracted Third Battle of Yrpes, of which the famous Passchendaele offensive was one of the bloodiest in WWI. The village of Passchendaele was finally captured on November 6, after more than three months of fighting and terrible loss of live.

The capture was a hollow victory however. The Allies had moved their enemy back about 8 kilometres, but the territory gained no longer had strategic value (NZ HisHistory: Passchendaele). The overall casualty figure for this three month battle is still uncertain, but on one day alone – October 12th – the tiny nation of New Zealand suffered 3296 casualties. In the first four hours of that day, 846 Kiwi soldiers lost their lives. For a nation of just over one million people, that loss was particularly horrendous (Passchendaele Society).

26 January 1918: the record reads “Det/Dep to Division Signallers.” Location is given as “Field.” From the Regiment’s history it seems that on the night of 22 January, the 1st Battalion had returned from a period in reserve a few miles back from the front line, and was to spend some time undergoing training.

3 February 1918: record reads “rejoined battalion.

During this period – the middle of winter – soldiers endured frequent enemy shelling as they tried to consolidate the positions they held. The Regimental History describes conditions:

The trench warfare in the Ypres salient differed from the Division’s earlier experiences at Armentières only by the greater discomforts with which the troops had to contend at Ypres. The trenches were muddy and were as a rule without duck-walks, which meant that the feet of the garrison were almost always wet. There was very little weather-proof sleeping accommodation; and though hot food was sent up from cook-houses behind the line, it usually arrived fairly cold, on account of the long distance it had to be carried.

The final date in Eric Gray’s service record is 27 March 1918. The entry contains just three words “Killed in Action.”

There is more to say about this young man, who travelled across the world from his home in rural Canterbury to die in France. But I think that deserves a separate post.

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23 thoughts on “Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

    • Archives NZ has really comprehensive records. I also have the service record of Eric Gray’s brother Wallace (my partner’s grandfather). I’m about to begin working my way through that. I feel very fortunate to have access to these records; when I’ve looked for British service records for my side of the family, I’ve found none. Over 50% of the WWI records for UK service personnel were destroyed in air raids during the Blitz in 1940.

  1. Another testament to the horrors of war. Whenever I read these histories of ONE individual who suffered or died in a war, I realize how much more powerful it is than just seeing a statistic about casualties. Great post.

    • Hi Amy. I know what you mean; we can all relate to an individual suffering. Once I would have projected such a story onto my brothers, but now that I’m a mother, I imagine how I’d feel if it were my son going to war. And sadly, for so many mothers right now, no imagination is necessary.

      • Right. No matter where we live or who we are, we all face those same fears and concerns. My grandsons may be little, but will the world be any safe in fourteen years when the older one hits 18? I can only dream it so.

  2. Great and such an interesting post. Back then it was hard for families to imagine what it was really like for their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. Now we have the Internet and instant news so we can see what is happening. I don’t know which is worse.

    • Thanks. You’re right; I can’t decide whether it would be worse not knowing, but being able to pretend that maybe it’s “not that bad” — or be bombarded with images.

  3. Two of my husbands great-uncles served with the Canterbury regiment and were killed. As were two of my great-uncles served with the Hawkes Bay Regiment in the Somme, Sue. They were both killed.

    • New Zealand had one of the highest per capita casualty rates in WWI. It’s tragic to think of all the young men (and the women) who marched off on a huge adventure (an OE) only to die in pointless battles for mere metres of stinking mud and tree stumps. No wonder every tiny settlement in the country has a war memorial!

  4. Oops, tapping this into
    My phone and I clicked on post by mistake. I wanted to add that I agree with you that proportionally the loss of life for NZ was huge. I think WW I marked a huge change in what it meant to be a New Zealander. That chalk kiwi on the hill above Sling says it all.

    • 🙂 I should have read this before I replied to the other post. Yes, I think you are right; WWI and in particular Gallipoli, shaped our identity so strongly. We see it in the huge numbers who attend ANZAC commemorations now.

  5. So well done, Su. Laying out the chronology as you did really helped me to imagine his experience, to the extent that is even possible. I saw “Gallipoli” many years ago and still remember how terribly sad it made me. I didn’t know that NZ had lost so many soldiers, proportionally-speaking.

    • Thank you! I struggled a bit with telling that story. I kept finding byways and rambling. But there is a logic in using the structure of the records I was referencing, and it did make writing easier. I am finding it almost more challenging to find ways of telling the stories, than actually researching them.

      Gallipoli has become symbolic of nationhood in Australia and NZ – and it was utterly terrible. Yet, NZ (and other) casualties at Passchendaele were actually worse. And both offensives were equally futile! Cheers, Su.

  6. Pingback: Death of a soldier: 27 March 1918. | Shaking the tree

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  8. Hi Su, read your story above with interest, one item that hit me was the simple statement that he got “Smack” my Father in Law about whom I have done a lot of research used the term “smacked” when speaking of himself being injured, in talking with Norm he gave me to understand it was a term in common usage then to describe being injured, Norm lost a leg at Passcheandale October 1917, we have his 3 pay books that cover his full period of service

    • Hi Michael. Thanks for getting in touch. That’s really interesting. I thought, reading Eric’s letter, that it was an odd turn of phrase and assumed he was just trying not to worry his sister. It’s interesting that the term was widespread, and I guess it did have the effect of persuading family back home that “things weren’t that bad”. It must have been terrible for wives, parents, siblings, being so far away from their menfolk and being unable to help them or even really know what was going on. The pay books must make fascinating reading! Cheers, Su.

  9. Pingback: “They shall grow not old …” – Shaking the tree

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